Turntable.fm Is Fun, But It's Not Really About "Discovery," Right?

Check out this hot new band! From 20 years ago!
Check out this hot new band! From 20 years ago!

Now that clones of the social-DJing service Turntable.fm have started popping up around the Internet, and the service has started getting amounts of money that the musicians featured on it could only dream of for the most part, it's time to maybe take a slightly longer view at the service, or at least for its potential to have people discover new music.

So, a brief overview: Turntable.fm is a hybrid of a chat room and an internet radio station. You collect people into a room—while logins go through Facebook, a public room is open to anyone, even people outside your Facebook-pal circle—and up to five people can "DJ," which means that they take turns playing songs from a queue of tracks in the Turntable.fm database. (It's somewhat robust, with even a few tracks that aren't commercially available in the States.) Each person in the crowd who likes your song can click a button and give you a "DJ point"; with more points you can acquire bigger avatars like the gorilla up top or, uh, the Deadmau5 head [UPDATE: I've been informed that the Mau5 was not very happy with the appropriation of his likeness, so that prize has been taken away. Aw.]. If you play a song that's disliked by too many people who register their disapproval, up goes the virtual needle and your turn ends.

Last night I was in a room with a few pals (including a few SOTC contributors) and its overall vibe was similar to most of the rooms I've been in—lots of older songs that got the avatars in the room bopping (I contributed Jam & Lewis-produced cuts by Robert Palmer and New Edition to the proceedings) and a lot of "YESSSSSSS"es coming from the assemblage; there wasn't much stuff that would be unfamiliar to more than 50% of the people listening in. (Big ups to the guy who played The Tough Alliance's cover of Primal Scream's C86 gem "Velocity Girl," btw.) The gaming aspect of the site probably contributes to this more than anything else; getting skipped, after all, is kind of embarrassing.

It was a fun way to spend a rainy evening when I was in a bad mood, everyone was pretty nice to chat with, and the playlist was definitely on point. But its retro bent got me thinking: Is Turntable.fm when it's operating at its peak, with listeners pleased and DJs' avatars multiplying in square pixelage, an endlessly customizable iteration of Jack-FM—music that's there to be listened to while you're doing something else? Does having the social-gaming aspects create a scenario where the "can you play [x overplayed song]" requests that so many DJs get when they're out spinning their wares in the real world become the guiding aesthetic force for people looking to upgrade their public persona? Is Turntable.fm another way to get listeners stuck in the retro mud, which, let's be honest, is pretty comfy?

In a way this problem is similar to the one with Spotify, which still is very light on ways into its vast catalog that don't involve browsing playlists—although Spotify, at least, doesn't wield the shame stick should people decide to listen to things that don't please the entire crowd. But gravitating toward the known, whether that known is "Last Friday Night" or a cut from Enter The 36 Chambers, is an understandable response for a populace overwhelmed by choice.

Retro culture has definitely gained even more momentum in recent years—the decline of the mass culture in music as far as new things has resulted in a supplanting of sorts by the shared old. The '90s revivalism that's so popular these days almost seems to have more of a hold on certain groups of people than the seemingly strangling '60s revivalism of 25-30 years ago—although that perception could be because there's less of a current mainstream (or even "mainstream") to push against the fetishization of the past. And it's probably worth noting that the Internet's economics play a role here as well; after all, it's easier to get pageviews, eyeballs, and comments when you're covering something that's known, instead of something that's new, and that's increasingly the metric by which "successful" content is perceived.

Perhaps the way to test out this hypothesis is to set up a blind turntable.fm room, where no songs from before, say, March 2011 are allowed and where the marquee announcing the title and artist of the song being played are somehow blocked out? Let the music speak for itself. It'd require some sort of hack, but the results, at least, would be surprising.

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